Brand Messaging Focused Only on Women Is Stuck in the Past

Ignore Demographic Changes and Evolving Social Norms at Your Peril

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It's the conventional wisdom touted daily via a thousand PowerPoint slides in a thousand new-business and campaign pitches: Women drive 80% of consumer purchases.

During the past four decades, women and men carved out and created more equitable workplaces, recalibrated domestic duties and, as Hanna Rosin has so pointedly argued in "The End of Men," turned the "middle class into a matriarchy." Women now make up 50% of the workplace and the median age of first marriages has steadily risen.

Yet dozens of studies have searched in vain for the equivalent rethink of gender stereotypes in advertising. In a recent meta-analysis of 64 advertising-content studies, sexist stereotypes dominate.

Women are:

  • three times more likely than men to be depicted as a product user as opposed to an authority figure;
  • four times more likely to be shown in a dependent role;
  • and 3.5 times more likely to be in a domestic environment rather than a work environment.
  • But if advertisers just "conventionalize our conventions, stylize what is already a stylization," as one researcher noted, what's the harm?

    Much marketing today remains creatively and strategically lazy; reflecting values of some mythic era of "50s homogeneity. Great branding and marketing does more than sell things, it actually affects, in the aggregate, the beliefs and values of society. And even though older generations might wish this world back again, among younger demographics, it's recognized for what it is: a mythic history.

    The notion that women drive the majority of consumer purchases just doesn't hold up anymore. And so the harm is this: The archetype of women as stay-at-home, subordinate housewives that buy every piece of clothing their husband owns and every product in the fridge isn't going to actually build your brand. Brands that ignore demographic changes and evolving social norms never evolve enough to capture the loyalty of the next generation. The outright and persistent neglect of the male demographic -- especially millennial males and the fast-growing Hispanic target market -- is bad marketing strategy.

    During the past six months, this truth was thrown into sharp relief as I talked to dozens of men across America, from the Midwest to the West Coast, across all generations -- millennial, Generation X and boomer alike. I found that younger men increasingly find and shape their identity through shopping. Brands that reflect their conception of what's cool, what's important, what their lives really look like capture their loyalty and shopping dollars. This represents a major shift. Consider that compared to boomer men, millennial men increasingly self-identify as fashionable and trendy -- 38% of millennial men compared to 16% of boomer men. Twice as many millennial men say they are willing to pay more for brands that reflect their personal style -- or 26% of millennials compared to 13% of boomer men.

    Brands ignoring young men is a little ironic, considering the makeup of ad agency creative departments. Sure, as Ad Age's issue on women in advertising reported, the old-boys' network of the agency world has been transformed, to some extent, by women. But the creative department, where images and campaigns are really born, is still largely a man's world; the ratio of women in creative departments is still 2.3 men to every 1 woman, according to one recent academic study. And once we get out of the realms of consumer electronics and pickup trucks, the men in that world (or the brand directors they work for) seem to pitch their messaging to women.

    In an increasingly egalitarian consumer culture, in which gender roles are less rigid, more fluid and constantly evolving, brands must work harder to understand how this affects emerging demographic groups. Yes, some categories -- the aforementioned consumer electronics -- need to pay more attention to women. But for a large number of marketers -- from fashion to retail to packaged goods -- it's time to start paying attention to men.

    Perhaps, if more brands do, what's happening in the real world -- 50/50 parenting, stay-at-home dads, husbands that make the grocery lists and do the shopping -- will start to be accurately and authentically represented in the marketplace and the image of women in advertising will get out of the "50s.

    Michelle Fenstermaker is executive director of insights & strategy at WD Partners.

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